Sara Arrhenius is a curator and a critic. She is the director of the Bonniers Konsthall in Stockholm. Arrhenius was the director of IASPIS (International Artists’ Studio Program in Sweden) between 2000-2005. She was the curator of the third Biennale in Gothenburg, and contributes regularly to magazines and publications focused on contemporary art. She has written and edited several book on contemporary art and culture most recently A Trip to the Moon (2012) and More Than Sound (forthcoming 2013). What follows is the transcription of the conversation held via skype on February 2013.
A Skype conversation with Sara Arrhenius, Director of the Bonniers Konsthall (Stockholm)
Conversation transcription below
“Many artists are forming more micro-societies that are not so much in contact with the larger place they live in. But it is very important today that contemporary art does not become a circle of elite that is travelling globally to different biennials and taking part at international conferences, but really try to also be responsible to connect to the local communities.”
Sara Arrhenius: I am the director of Bonniers Konsthall which is a newly opened Kunsthalle in Stockholm. I came here before the building was built. So I’ve really been part of the building up of the all structure, and of the organization. I think one needs to know a bit the scene in Stockholm to understand the setting. Bonniers Konsthall is a privately funded art institution; it is funded by a family of collectors that are also publishers. When we opened, there was just another privately funded Kunsthalle in Stockholm, Magasin 3. They have an extensive collection and they are well known, they have been running for more than 20 years. And then there was the Moderna Museet which is State funded and the Kunsthalle like Liljevalchs that is funded by the City. At the moment Stockholm is facing such an intense scene in terms of institutions and artists run spaces. Moderna Museet is very active so we have a very energetic scene at the moment with a lot of places for exhibitions and with art schools that also very active. It is a new and very intense situation, with very interesting curators coming back to Sweden like Daniel Birnbaum which is now the director of the Moderna Museet, Maria Lind who is now the director of Tensta Konsthall a city run space outside Stockholm. It is quite an interesting situation where one could also develop different and subjective modes of curating, not being responsible of doing everything at one institution.
Tiziana Casapietra: You create a kind of synergy between all these cultural realities.
SA: Yes, definitely so. And also because we have IASPIS, the Residency Program, where I worked before as a director, it is also a good place for having international exchanges. For its size, Stockholm has really an impressive art scene and I think that it also influences how the artist can work and exchange with the international art scene.
TC:Why do you think this is happening in Stockholm in a moment which is so difficult for Europe?
SA: The bad time is on its way to Sweden too, we are also in a recession time, so we will see how it develops. When this all interesting situation started, it was a time where both the City, the State, and the private collectors could invest quite a lot of energy in building up institutions. But it is also a matter of pure coincidence. I mean, one starts and then it becomes an inspiration for another person, it has a lot to do with special persons and special situations.
TC: Would you like to go in specifics about your program or the events that are happening at the moment in Stockholm?
SA: What is good at the moment is of course this intense scene with lot of institutions. What is more problematic is of course the discussion around culture and culture funding that we are having in Europe in general and that is also coming to Sweden. At the moment when the City and the State think about cultural funding, they discuss more about joint ventures between public and private and about the idea that culture should benefit the tourist industry or different regions. I think that this discussion is highly problematic and also because now we have many privately funded institutions there could be a moment where the State and the City could withdraw. So I think it is really important that we keep the discussion up all the time and not make that possible.
More and more you can see, especially if you look at the regions, that it is difficult to maintain institutions without thinking in terms of how good they are for the region, of unemployment or education. There is an instrumentalization of culture; we are talking more about culture industry now than we did 10 years ago. I think that the development is quite problematic, and you recognize this from the rest of Europe. It is really important also that all the different kind of institutions in Sweden and Stockholm have a discussion with each other and find arguments for art for its own sake.
TC: Is there anything specific that you would like to highlight in your program, in the institution you are directing?
SA: I think for me when I came at Bonnier Konsthall from the background of being an art critic more than an institution person, and also with the experience of IASPIS to create exchange and also support the artists’ production, I felt it was really important to have a platform where artist could get support for the production. So a strong line in our profile is to do larger commission with individual artist and carry their work from a research stage to artwork and exhibition. It is very unusual to be able to do that now; there are very few institutions that are State and City funded that can do that. For me it is an important responsibility to work with an artist from the beginning, trust what artists do, and invite them to come here and do something new for us.
At the beginning there was no intention to create a collection here. It was meant to be a Kunsthalle, but when we started to work with these more long term commissions, we felt it would be a bit sad to leave them. So I slowly started to build a collection with the works that we are producing here at the Konsthall, it is a very small but organically developed collection that comes from what artists have exhibited here. We also have been thinking of trying to commission works that are maybe not so common to do, performative work, performances, larger installations, things that are not so materialized or easy to collect.
Among the artists we have been working with within this format of exhibitions is Monica Bonvicini , Thomas Saraceno, Michael Beutler, Klara Kristalova and Gunilla Klingberg. Now we are working with a large exhibition by Danish artist Jeppe Hein.
Then we have worked with a series of cross disciplinary projects connected to research work at Södertörn University in Stockholm. Together with them we developed projects that have a quite long time span. One example is a big project we did for 2 years around culture translatability which was a fantastic but very complex project that involved a lot of different disciplines. From our side we developed an exhibition involving 2 guests curators Jochen Volz and Daniela Castro that was based in Brazil. They developed an exhibition around this concept of translatability and together with the university, we also developed research work and seminars and round tables and publications. This project was for me very important because we could think more long term an really think about producing knowledge in a different way.
TC: What do you think of the connection of art and society?
SA: If you look at the Scandinavian scene, there has always been a strong connection between art and society. We have that tradition in a lot of different ways; there are artists who comment and criticize the society, and in that sense they produce a knowledge about who we are and what we could do. Then we also have a tradition where the artists very actively take part in the building of the society and that was of course very strong in the 60s and the 70s.
Today that tradition is really strong in Sweden still. What you can see are mostly artists that that criticize, comment, and look at the society and start a dialogue and a discussion about what the society is or could be or should not be. Especially in the moving image work with artists like Ann-Sofi Sidén or Petra Bauer that have actively been discussing problems in society. It is also interesting to notice that, having a situation with a lot of new institutions starting in Sweden, most of them have developed a program linked to the idea of the Swedish being a quite open society where culture should connect to everyone. Also private institutions have public program with education for kids and open discussions. Private institutions could be built up really like closed mausoleums, closed collections, but we do not want to build institutions in that way, because we think that art as a role in society.
Then I think right now, and this of course connects the global situation, many artists are forming more micro-societies that are not so much in contact with the larger place they live in. Artists are now more mobile and dynamic and they connect to artists and curators in different parts of the world and share ideas. In this specialized society where we form very small communities to interact with, there is the dangerous possibility that we lose a more public platform where we can share ideas with people from different parts of societies. This is something you can also see in the Scandinavian countries.
It is very important that the artist does not close him/herself too much in his or her own circles, just connected to art specialists globally. He/she really has to try to think local and bridge to other disciplines and other areas of society, to not lose this public debate where art could be really important in the society. I think that it is very important today that contemporary art does not become a circle of elite that is travelling globally to different biennials and taking part at international conferences, but really try to also be responsible to connect to the local communities.